The only option?
Despite continuous assurances by the Obama administration that efforts to slow down Iran’s mad dash to acquire nuclear weapons includes a military option, critics have long complained that the threat is hollow. As another international meeting on Iran’s nuclear program is being brokered, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s name can be added to that growing chorus of critical voices.
While Netanyahu has long been an outspoken advocate of imposing tough economic sanctions on Iran, he’s been a quieter voice on utilizing the military option. So, it raised eyebrows when Netanyahu, in a meeting with Vice-President Joe Biden, made it clear that further economic sanctions against Iran could not be effective unless backed up by a credible military threat.
Speaking with Biden at the GA summit in New Orleans, an annual event sponsored by the Jewish Federation, Netanyahu told the vice-president: “the only time that Iran stopped its nuclear program was in 2003, and that was when they believed that there was a real chance of an American military strike against them.” He added, “Paradoxically, only a real military threat against Iran can prevent the need to activate a real military force.”
Netanyahu’s heightened concern over the inefficacy of sanctions on slowing down the Iranian nuclear program has come at a time when the United States and five other powers (China, Russia, France England, and Germany) are trying to broker a meeting with Iran in order to resume nuclear talks.
It’s no secret the Obama administration prefers the diplomatic route in dealing with Iran. However, the administration's claim that it has never ruled out the use of military force against the Islamic regime rings somewhat hollow when one considers most of the recent UN resolutions passed against Iran purposely omit the use of military force as an enforcement option.
The administration’s commitment to peaceful deterrence to tame Iran was underscored by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in his reply to Netanyahu’s comments:
“I would disagree that only a credible military threat can get Iran to take the actions it needs to end its nuclear weapons program…[W]e are prepared to do what is necessary but at this point we continue to believe that the political-economic approach that we are taking is in fact having an impact in Iran."
This information may come as news to Iranians, who have been openly contemptuous of the effects economic sanctions have had on their pursuit of nuclear weapons. Part of this bravado, of course, comes from the fact that many nations, including Russia and China, have become partners in Iran’s energy sector, despite the imposition of economic sanctions.
Iran remains confident it will be able to ride out any sanctions until its nuclear weapons program is complete. When the UN placed a fourth round of sanctions on Iran in the summer of 2010, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad remarked at the time: “Iran is one of the most powerful and stable countries in the region, and never bowed – and will never bow – to the hostile actions and pressures by these few powers.”
In fact, talk of a military option doesn’t seem to cow Ahmadinejad either. According to one European diplomat, such talk "hasn't moved in any way the Iranian regime." Of course, why should it when there are no visible signs that anyone in the West takes the military option seriously?
There is growing concern that the course being chartered by the Obama administration -- a seemingly endless series of toothless sanctions -- is itself an acceptance of a nuclear Iran as a fait accompli.
If this is indeed the route the administration is taking, a warning was surely shot across the Obama administration’s bow recently by Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Addressing the Halifax International Forum in Nova Scotia, Canada, Graham told attendees that if Obama "decides to be tough with Iran beyond sanctions...he is going to feel a lot of Republican support for the idea that we cannot let Iran develop a nuclear weapon… Containment is off the table.”
Graham further anted-up his rhetoric by advocating not only that the U.S. destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, but also that we “sink their navy, destroy their air force and deliver a decisive blow to the Revolutionary Guard, in other words neuter that regime."
These comments by Graham provoked an immediate response from Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who said, “Don’t take the American senator’s remark too seriously. He wanted to joke."
If Mottaki thinks Graham is speaking for general amusement, he may want to confer with David Broder, dean of liberal political opinion, who recently opined that Obama could extricate himself from his current political woes and earn a second term by following Graham’s advice. In a recent column, Broder wrote:
Here is where Obama is likely to prevail. With strong Republican support in Congress for challenging Iran's ambition to become a nuclear power, he can spend much of 2011 and 2012 orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs. This will help him politically because the opposition party will be urging him on. And as tensions rise and we accelerate preparations for war, the economy will improve.
Now, perhaps Graham’s desire to lay waste to Iran's military is not indicative of the prevailing mood of the American electorate. After all, polls continued to show throughout the election season that Americans were singularly focused on domestic issues, to the near exclusion of foreign affairs.
However, the American preoccupation with its domestic ailments will not prevent other nations from confronting the immediate danger of a nuclear Iran. In particular, despite a long adherence toward patience, most Israelis believe their very existence is now at stake.
Binyamin Netanyahu’s comments to Joe Biden are both a public reminder of that view and a subtle hint that if Israel cannot rely on help from the United States to defang Iran, the Jewish State won’t shrink from the task.